Politicians accuse each other of being cowardly collaborators who surrender, betray and capitulate. Commentators on television warn of riots. Inflammatory language is increasingly the norm in public life, yet one word remains muffled under a curious omertà. The BBC presenter Naga Munchetty was only the latest to discover that describing something as racist, even in a measured way, can get you into a lot of trouble.
For many people of colour in largely white institutions, this is a familiar prohibition that works to shut down much-needed discussion and create a repressive and demoralising silence.
Racism is that strange phenomenon, apparent everywhere and apparently nowhere. People believe that not “seeing” race, or being “colourblind”, is progressive, when it is merely evasive. What might happen if we took it as given that after six centuries of European imperial rule it would be astounding if most of us – including people of colour – were not shaped by the racial hierarchies put in place? The term white supremacy may invoke images of hooded Klansmen burning crosses, but it actually refers to an entrenched system of racial domination that once justified colonisation and slavery, the legacies of which still shape economic, political and social orders, particularly in the west.
Racism is emphatically not a matter of subjective “experience”. It has objective structural force that can be identified not just in discriminatory practices but in differing entitlements and unequal access to resources, representation and opportunities. “Go back to where you came from” is not just a wounding phrase that almost all people of colour and migrants have heard. Its material consequences include actual expulsions such as those of the “Windrush children” and, of course, discriminatory travel, migration and citizenship policies.
Another way of deflecting engagement with race is to personalise matters. As the sociologist Robin DiAngelo notes, insisting that there was no “intent” to be racist or asking, “how can you say I’m racist, you don’t know me”, are manifestations of “white fragility”. In this scheme, only exceptionally “bad” people can be racist, and therefore the mere suggestion of racism is often treated as more serious and hurtful than racism itself. DiAngelo makes the important point that discussions about race are bound to be uncomfortable for members of dominant communities who have to come to terms with their own entanglement in an unfair system.
To avoid such discomfort and difficulty is to refuse change. I know this from personal experience as an upper-caste woman from India who has also benefited from a deeply iniquitous system. I too have felt defensive, but there’s no way to change things without admitting to the existence of caste or race supremacy, and dealing with the fact of inevitable complicity and the inherited privilege that disadvantages others.
At the same time, “whataboutery” leads nowhere. Whenever I speak of race and empire in the British media, I receive emails asking: “What about caste” and inviting me to “go back” to India to address the caste system instead.People not normally known for a deep interest in class matters will also suddenly ask “what about the working classes?”. A now retired female manager once told me that, although sexism was still an issue at Cambridge University, racism was not. There’s no need to pit race, class, caste, gender, ability or sexuality against each other: there are no free passes in an inequitable world where each brutality shapes the others.
There are also no “race cards”. People who raise issues of racial exclusion or abuse are not demanding special treatment; on the contrary, they are arguing against the special privileges bestowed on the majority or dominant group. Most of us who raise issues of racism do so with hesitation, feeling vulnerable as we do so and fearing inevitable social and institutional reprisals. Meet a race whistleblower and you meet a deemed “troublemaker”, a position with unpleasant institutional consequences.
Discussion of race is often derailed by bogeys such as “reverse racism”. Of course it’s possible for people of colour to display hostile or denigrating attitudes towards other races, Asian anti-blackness being one example. “Racism towards white people” is not, however, systemic and does not have policy consequences. Certificates from “best friends” of colour declaring a person to be “not racist” are also void. Just as having a mother does not make men free of sexism in a patriarchal world, having a black best friend, spouse or even child cannot absolve individuals from complicity in racist language and actions. Indeed, ethnic minority politicians may themselves be used to justify such things as blackface or xenophobia.
No one is claiming that victims of racism are pure or noble. People are never purely victims and everyone has to ask tough questions of themselves. It is perfectly possible, for example, to be at once homophobic yourself and a victim of racism. Both must be tackled.
Far from “wallowing in victimhood”, people who challenge racism are acting as responsible agents of change. At a time when the forces of violent racism are globally in the ascendant once again, we can help them along by refusing to name it as such.
Alternatively, we can do the right thing: actively acknowledge racism’s existence and try to rein in its power. If we don’t choose to have difficult and urgent discussions openly, then “diversity” will remain a meaningless buzzword where people’s bodies are included in institutions but their voices are silenced.